Between Parachute and Rifle

We’d bought the beer and ice at a gas station near Parachute, Colorado. I stood with the pump while my father acquired the goods. I was a couple years off the buying age, although I had a decent fake in my wallet. I laid a bed of ice in the cooler and tumbled the cans in, keeping two for the ride. I cracked his open as he got in and held it out as he put us in gear. He said: “Goddammit, son. Don’t hand me my beer yet. Wait till we’re on the road.”

For the trip up he’d bought a half dozen maps for us to fumble through. They meant nothing to me. I didn’t actually remember the area, only the monumental yellow mesa, sparse landscape. Only the smell of old tires and the stubbornness of barbed-wire fence gates. I remember tying up horses, or stumbling into the ghost-white cold and taking a shit in an outhouse in the middle of the night.

A poet, maps are mostly useless to me. These ones detailed every switchback between Parachute and Rifle, places my father ran cows as a teenager. The stated goal was to find an old shack with a corral where a couple of hands could get a few winks if they couldn’t get off the mountain before dark. For that, maps are pretty worthless anyway.

The maps did lead us along a dirt road where we only had to open one barbed-wire fence gate. I’d opened a few of them before, mostly on trips up to visit my grandfather Otis Murray. That’s how I knew it was my job as passenger to get out, struggle with the post and loop for a few minutes, cut my hand, say a few oaths to all such fences, and wait while he drove on through. Repeat process to close the gate, then hop back in. “Cut your hand?” he said. “Meh, a little,” I said, sucking the blood. “They’re hell for a kid to open,” he said. “I’ve always hated ’em.”

My siblings and I had gone up on numerous trips to the Western Slope as kids. It was quite a drive from the big city. We’d pack into the wood-paneled Ford Taurus: me, Dad, brother Chris, and sister Katie. Sometimes my mom would brave it, and she’d say to me playfully, “You and me is city folk.” Most trips were designed to see Dad’s side of the family, but we’d usually end up doing something obsolete like fix a fence at the old ranch house or paint something thirsty like a crappy old barn or a front porch.

Once, Dad took only the boys to paint my grandfather’s horse trailer and learn how to do something, some real work. According to him, we didn’t know how to do anything. That was because we lived in the city. On the way up, brother Chris said, “Dad, is a horse trailer goddam or son of a bitch?” This was a legitimate question. Everything was goddam or son of a bitch, but how could one tell which? Dad thought for a minute and said: “That’s a good question. We’re goin’ up there to paint a goddam horse trailer, and when we’re done we’ll have painted the son of a bitch.”

This trip was different, though. I was back from college and things had changed. Grandpa Otis had passed (“that’s a good man they put in the ground there”).  The ranch house had been sold, along with the horses and cows. Some crook had stolen most of Dad’s horse tack during a garage sale. Most of that stuff wasn’t necessary anymore, since we didn’t live on the Western Slope. We lived in Denver. Actually, this was probably the first time up that Dad didn’t bring a pistol.

One wasn’t needed on this trip and would’ve been useless—unless for letting off steam with a few shots into the sagebrush. Grandma Berniece could shoot the eye out of a bird flying, to use one expression, and Dad himself needed one shot to make change out of a quarter at 100 yards. I never saw him level a firearm at anything living, but I did once see him swoop over the side of the horse he was riding—and I mean riding angry and at full canter—pick up his cowboy hat off the dirt where it’d fallen, and set it back on his head, all while cussing a litany that’d make a sailor blush. It was amazing.

Gregg Murray’s father as a toddler on Old Mountain.

Fine, so there is some embellishment, but sometimes running cows isn’t much to talk about. Out here I knew well enough that the cowboy life had given way to the rancher life. No dirty button-ups and sixteen-hour trail drives, no sleeping in a blanket roll in a cold rain. It was all buggy bosses duded up with a new Stetson and a Ford F150, biggest goddam truck you could find. In fact, most of the land we were going to hike on was owned by some oil company that hadn’t yet scoured it.

We parked the car—and the beer—outside of a fence gate that was now owned by Exxon. It said “No trespassing.” Luckily the land we were on that day, the very brush beneath our boots, hadn’t been raked and drilled yet. Somewhere, Dad said, there was a creek, a small corral, and a cabin that he remembered from his childhood. So we yanked open that fence gate—and cussed at it for sticking in the dirt—and started looking for the cabin.

I wished I’d worn more comfortable shoes. We’d been walking a long way no matter the metric, whether hours or miles, whether silent confounded stretches or soliloquies with Dad shaking his head and saying, “Well I don’t know if I recognize this or not. That over there does look familiar.” That was mostly false alarm. He’d point along the line of a decent-size creek where cows would’ve whet their whistles. “There isn’t a stupider animal in the world,” he’d say. Sounded about right to me, since the one obstacle on the dusty road up was some dumb son of a bitch cow standing in the middle of the goddam road. Didn’t move till we’d hopped out of the car and had a conversation with him. The conversation went like this, “Move out of the road, godammit, Yaa!!!” The cow said, “Moo,” and stayed put.

Our feet hurt and we still hadn’t seen the cabin. Nor had we headed back. “No, no, I think it’s around here. Let’s just get around the bend.” What was funny is I did get excited when he thought he recognized something. I’d start asking him questions that typically drew laconic replies. “So Dad, what’s the longest ride you ever had to do? Who is Charlie Sandoval? Did you ever have to shoot a cow?” “Longest ride? Hell I don’t know. Charlie Sandoval was a worthless son of a bitch. Why would I ever have to shoot a cow?”

I’d like to say I had a different response when we reached that nondescript range where Dad spied an empty creek bed. I’d actually put my hands on my knees and said: “Dad, I’m done. I’m heading back. You can do what you want. I want a cold beer.” But he had some weird defiance in his voice too. It wasn’t that of an adult. It was kind of giddy and secretive and out of character, like the time when he told Katie and me—after trying unsuccessfully to fix something in the house—that small tools were conspiring against him. He said: “Do what you want; I’m goin’ around this bend.” And he did. So I waited.

That is until he starting running—skipping?—along the dry creek. He’d hit the bend at the horizon of my vision. Too stunned to say anything, I eventually caught up and saw him smiling and looking at it. There it was, a dilapidated, crumbling abode maybe 10 by 15, roof collapsed as a trampled cornfield, broken windows. Next to it slumped a makeshift corral, big enough to hold a night herd. The corral gate swung open so far it stuck into uneven ground, which is every pain-in-the-ass gate. I mean, it was a real piece of shit, let’s be real. But we were happy to see it.

Photo by Gregg Murray.

We didn’t use the map on the way back. You just walk where you’ve been. By that point, the beer’s gotten good and cold. Beer tastes better when it’s cold like that.


Colored chalk drawing at the top of the page by Connie Murray, Gregg Murray’s aunt.

Where Did the West Go?

The road stretched straight and flat before me, like you’d see in a sports car commercial or a Dennis Hopper movie. On either side, the land spread wide and open. Not quite flat—with a bit of a roll here and there—dotted with juniper and other unidentifiable desert shrubs. I had been traveling out West for almost six weeks since leaving my home in West Virginia, staying with friends in Albuquerque, visiting National Parks with my husband John, and searching for someplace in this vast region that I could call home. I spent Christmas at the Grand Canyon, celebrated the New Year in Joshua Tree National Park, and camped for two cold nights in the Mojave Desert. But nothing had felt like the real West until then—that moment on the long drive from Albuquerque to Roswell, New Mexico (don’t ask) when I looked around and saw…nothing. Or rather, no one.

Don’t get me wrong—I love the National Parks. In fact, as we jostled for position at the South Rim overlooks on Christmas Day among the Asian, European, Latino, and other tourists, I confessed to John that America’s National Parks are what I’m most proud of about our country. Make America great again? It already is. It always was. All we did was have the smarts not to mess parts of it up. Parts of it.

Since then, I had been searching through northern Arizona and New Mexico in a borrowed Fiat and obsessively Googling communities in Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Nevada. My goal? Find a nice small town with a nice small house where John and I could plant our not-so-nice small footprints and spend our weekends traipsing through wildlands. When I looked at a map and saw all that glorious green National Forest and parkland surrounding western communities, I figured somewhere out there was a town for us. But as I explored those potential sites on the ground, I found mostly strip malls or ghost towns—chain stores or boarded-up buildings. Other places looked promising, but the specter of future fracking or the legacy of past mining cautioned me away. With the Trump Administration promising more fossil fuel drilling and less environmental oversight, my misgivings grew.

I was getting discouraged. Where was the West I remembered? I had gotten my first taste of it decades ago, standing on the edge of the Beaver Rim in central Wyoming. Until then, I had spent all of my twenty-five years on the East Coast. Eastern deciduous forest and Atlantic surf were my natural habitats. But that summer, as I looked out over the breathtaking emptiness of basin and range, I felt an awe that I never could have imagined. Now, with a few more bumpy miles on my body’s odometer, I wanted to feel that again.

In 2016, the Center for American Progress, in conjunction with the consulting group Conservation Science Partners, released a report showing that between 2001 and 2011, the American West lost a football field’s worth of natural area to human development every two and a half minutes. Because of urban sprawl, energy and mineral development, roads and transmission lines, the landscape that inspired me so long ago has become more and more elusive.

Somehow, on that lonely drive to Roswell, among the desolate plains of eastern New Mexico, I found my awe again. The land surrounding me wasn’t famous for its scenery or valued for its minerals or preserved for posterity. It was forgotten—except, I suspect, by the ranchers who somehow make their living from sparsely scattered herds grazing over a vast parched landscape that can’t handle many head. I saw a few cattle here and there, an occasional car on the highway, and a mystical island of snow-covered mountains off in the distance.

Photo by Amy Mathews Amos.

Maybe that’s the answer, I thought. Find the forgotten places. Soak in the vastness of a western universe without fast food, souvenir shops, drill rigs, or parking lots by going where no one else will go. Fill the soul with a satisfying emptiness that few can find on Earth these days.

But as I finished my drive, reality hit. Forgotten places can get pretty lonely. No friends to dine with, no community to embrace, no airport to whisk me off when work demands my presence. Best to find the forgotten places on foot, with a pack on the back and a burning need in the belly.

My search for a new home continues. I’m beginning to suspect that wherever I land might not be awe-inspiring. But at least I know that, for now, some of those forgotten places still exist. That emptiness matters. And I know that, if I explore far enough, I can capture that breathtaking feeling of vast wildness once again, alone in the middle of nowhere.


Photo at the top courtesy of John Amos.

We Are No Birds: Which Witch

Halloween is and always has been my favorite holiday. I love dressing up, I love the chilly autumn nights, and I love the spookiness that hangs in the air throughout October. I love driving through my neighborhood and seeing houses that have been transformed into haunted mansions, seeing lawns transformed into graveyards with plastic skeleton hands reaching up through the dirt. It is this element of Halloween that I love the most: transformation. On Halloween, nothing is quite what it seems to be. A garish, illuminated grin is no more than a pumpkin. A fearsome monster is only a child wearing a mask. Everything is just a bit darker, but all the more thrilling for its magic.

Perhaps the most magical (and the most transformative) Halloween figure in contemporary times is the witch. Over time, the witch has seen a number of iterations and transformations. The witch has been an old hag, a beautiful enchantress, a dark figure, a friendly figure, an ugly crone, and a sexy temptress. So which witch is which? (I’m sorry; I had to.) How can the witch inhabit all of these identities at once?

The image of the witch we know today was originally created by the patriarchy as a way of ostracizing independent women. Thinking historically, women persecuted in witch hunts in Europe and North America were often women who lived alone and had knowledge of things they shouldn’t. As Kristen Korvette writes, “These were healers and midwives with intimate knowledge about sexual reproduction and the human body who threatened to educate a highly uneducated populace” and were thus punished. In addition to knowledge, these women also “raised suspicion by amassing too much land, wealth, or influence,” things that women at the time were not supposed to have. As Chloe Germaine Buckley says, the label of witch was used “to delegitimise powerful women and locate them on the outside of society.”

In contemporary popular culture, we tend to think of the witch in one of three ways. Korvette opines that the witch “…is all at once wizened hag, poison apple in hand; learned spinster, married to her books; and enchanting seductress with bared breasts and hypnotic stare.” (I will discuss later a fourth category of the “fun” witch.) The first witch—the “wizened hag”—might be what we think of as a “classic” witch, an old woman with warts, green skin, and snaggled teeth. The wizened hag witch draws her power from a rejection of society and its values, instead putting stock in what she can do to harm others.

The second witch—the “learned spinster”—lives alone, often on the edge of town or in the woods since she has been ostracized by her community. The spinster witch is often called upon for a magic favor (like a potion or spell) from the protagonist, who must make the journey to her far-off dwelling to receive help. While this witch is often not portrayed to be as violent as the wizened hag, the audience is still expected to be wary of her because she is a woman who lives alone and commits herself to books (in this case, spell books), rather than having a family or a husband; thus, she is not to be trusted.

The third witch is the “enchanting seductress.” This witch draws her power from her overt displays of sexuality as part of her plan to seduce men, in particular the male hero, into submitting to dark magic against their will. The seductress witch has knowledge of sex and magic that the “average” woman wouldn’t, making her intriguing to men. The seductress witch is also often depicted as having a sexual relationship with the Devil, making her sexual appeal even more deadly.

These three types of witches possess traits that originate from the patriarchal fear of independent women. The patriarchy fears the wizened hag because she has knowledge of things he doesn’t (magic) that she can use to take away men’s power. Patriarchy may also despise the wizened hag because of her old and ugly physical appearance, which refuses to cater to the male gaze that desires young, beautiful women. The patriarchy fears the spinster witch because she lives alone and is invested in literacy and education. Any woman who would choose this kind of life over a traditional one where she plays the role of wife and mother is a deviant. Her interest in education is transformed into an obsession with magic. Perhaps the most direct tie to the patriarchy’s historical fear of witches is illustrated by the seductress witch. Much like those that feared midwives and healers for their knowledge of sexuality, the patriarchy fears the seductress witch because not only does she have knowledge of sexuality that the “average” woman shouldn’t, but she uses it against men. Women who express their sexuality and sexual desire, then, are cast as witches who prey upon men’s “natural” sexual urges and turn him to a dark path.

While the image of the witch has historically been built on patriarchal fear of independent women, a surprising trend has emerged in recent years. In addition to the three types of witches described above, a fourth type of witch exists, the “fun” witch. The fun witch is seen most often in children’s and family movies like Harry Potter, Matilda, and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Rather than seeking to harm, this witch uses her powers for the betterment of others. This witch is often seen as different from her peers, but she is not ostracized. In fact, after a period of time, she is accepted by her community after they see the good that her magic can do. Importantly, the fun witch’s independence is not something to be suppressed or feared: it is to be celebrated.

The witch is all of these women at once. As Halloween is all about transformation, it is only fitting that the witch is one of Halloween’s most prevalent images.



Buckley, Chloe Germaine. “Hag, temptress or feminist icon? The witch in popular culture.” The Conversation.

Korvette, Kristen. “Witches are some of the most enduring feminist icons of our time.” Quartz.